So this week a friend of mine told me he felt called to missionary work in the middle east, however he was struggling as he’d recently heard a preacher use Galatians 4 to explain why Christians should not only refuse to take the Gospel to the Arab nations we should be openly antagonistic towards them. After all, it’s in the Bible…isn’t it?
These are the verses (NKJV):
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar– 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children– 26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. 27 For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children Than she who has a husband.” 28 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. 29 But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. 30 Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.
And the following was my reply:
I was concerned that a pastor would use such a tactic, and wonder at what his own personal hang-ups, upbringing or experiences have been to lead him to such an UNgracious position. It’s difficult to make this point of view resonate with John’s writing in Revelation about “every tribe and tongue”. And I wonder what theological gymnastics are required to be able to exclude ANY people at all from the open invitation of Jesus’ sacrifice.
Unfortunately, this type of elitist religiosity is still prevalent today, and is in direct contradiction to the Gospel – which by definition is ‘Good News’ … to ALL. The message is one of Grace – an inclusive Grace.
OK, enough of my rant . On to an exegesis …
My take on Galatians is that the central theme of the letter is the “how and why” we are accepted by God and how we continue to maintain that acceptance. I think the verses in question are a great example of this theme, especially in dealing with a specific problem of Jewish-Christians (those who were Jews, but have now accepted Jesus) trying to influence the Gentile-Christians into first becoming Jewish before becoming Christian.
In verses 21 to 31 Paul is helping the Galatians realize that Prophesy has been fulfilled in Jesus in perhaps a different way to what they believed it would be. They knew, from prophesy, that the Gentiles would one day turn in multitudes to God. But what has tripped up the Jewish-Christians in Galatia is that they have never conceived of the Gentiles coming to God without first becoming Jews.
Paul refers to Ishmael as “according to the flesh” which simply means he was conceived, and born in the natural way, requiring no miracle or supernatural promise. And so the Jewish people until the time of Jesus are known as being the people of Promise because that is how Isaac came to be.
But Paul is pointing out in verses 24-25 that the Jews now, having not received Jesus, have traded places with the natural and have become like children of Ishmael.
In verse 26 He goes on to point out that there is a new Jerusalem – a free Jerusalem. The Jews that remain in the old Jerusalem, which is tied to Sinai, by their not accepting Jesus have now become like Ishmael – outside of the promise. But to those Jews who do, AND now to the Gentiles, there is a new Jerusalem.
verses 28-29 therefore are Paul showing the new Gentile Christians that although easy to now see how they have become rightful spiritual heirs (v28) they will also experience the mocking of Ishmael which is a reference to Genesis 29:8-9. In other words, “yes, you are now children of promise, but expect the persecution that comes with that”.
The casting out in v.30 is Paul reaffirming that God has not suddenly become more liberal in his acceptance of the Gentiles but that Natural Religiosity cannot co-habit with Supernatural Faith. Christianity is intended to be narrow-minded just as the path it follows is also narrow. There is no nice and civil middle ground. So he is reassuring the Gentiles to stick to their guns and warning the Jewish-Christians that they cannot inject the old into the new somehow. In the end, if they try, Christianity would just become diluted (perhaps we are seeing some of that in these days with such things as inter-faith organizations).
So not only is this passage NOT AT ALL about the right of Christians to persecute or exclude ANY other people group, it is in fact a warning that in becoming Christian we ourselves will be persecuted. And here’s the irony, Paul is especially talking about the Religious and Pharisaical persecuting the new people of Promise – the Spiritual … which is exactly what this preacher has done. In his message of exclusivity he has become just like the Jews who hang tenuously on to Sinai wielding their circumcision blades and decreeing that only the Law can save.
OK, so that’s pretty heavy I know. But having witnessed in recent months people from all walks of life, and some especially dark and dreary backgrounds, come to know Jesus and completely turn their lives around, I cannot accept a message of Grace tied to a fear-based religion that would drive more people away from the cross than it invites to it. That’s not Grace. That’s not even true salvation. And so I passionately preach a message of true grace and violently defend against those who would exclude ANYONE from it.